At a Loss For Words
Novelists Find Sex Scandal Is a Hard Act to Follow
By David Streitfeld
Christopher Buckley was coming home on the Metroliner, working on a chapter in his new novel that involved a black friend of the president, a smooth fixer-type named Burton Galilee.
Buckley happened to glance at the newspaper next to him. There was a story about his character's real-life model, Vernon Jordan, and his involvement in the scandal surrounding President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"I just thought, 'Why bother?' Who needs satire when this show is running?" says Buckley, author of "The White House Mess" and "Thank You for Smoking." "The hardest part of being a comic novelist is competing with the front page."
David Baldacci, author of the popular presidential thriller "Absolute Power," seconds the notion that "the imagination of even the best fiction writers is constantly usurped by real events. The temptation for the writer is to keep going to such extremes that eventually he loses plausibility completely."
Novelists like Buckley and Baldacci know that fiction, more than anything, has to have that plausibility. Events must happen in logical sequence; characters need to be consistent; wild coincidences should be skipped. Even the surprises and sudden twists must be coherent.
Reality is under no such constraints. It's messy.
"I think fiction can compete -- barely -- with the American political reality," says Gore Vidal, who's written a half-dozen novels, including "Empire" and "Washington, D.C.," set in the corridors of power. "But fiction to be good must seem true while reality in our lawyerly media-ized land creates untruth to such an extent that nothing is ever really plausible."
That's the trouble with the Lewinsky story. No matter how true it may ultimately be, it sure doesn't seem true.
"If I had written a novel where the president had an affair with a 21-year-old intern who refused to clean a dress for the reasons Lewinsky was supposedly refusing to clean a dress, no editor in New York would have allowed me to keep that scene in," says Charles McCarry, author of "Second Sight," "The Secret Lovers" and other tales of Washington intrigue. "They would have said it was unbelievable."
Baldacci expresses a common frustration when he notes that "I've always found Clinton to be an intelligent person, strategic and forward-looking. To do what he's accused to have done, with Paula Jones and all the other things in his background, would be so stupid. It makes him inconsistent as a character. If I read this in a story, I couldn't say it was likely."
Only a brave or foolhardy writer would undertake a Washington novel against this colorful, unpredictable landscape.
"It's a Sisyphean task," Buckley says. "You need strong shoulders and very good climbing boots."
'Wag,' You're It
"It started like most of my life does, as a joke, a one-liner," says Larry Beinhart, the novelist whose work, thanks to Hollywood, neatly anticipated the current scandal. "I was watching the Gulf War on CNN, and I said, 'Hey, this is a made-for-TV movie.' "
He can't remember whom he said it to, but he remembers this: She didn't laugh. So he said it to other people. They didn't laugh either. They seemed to think he was saying, "This is just like a TV movie." But Beinhart meant: "There is a guy somewhere who directed and scripted this."
No one understood, so he expanded his joke by a couple of hundred pages into a novel, "American Hero." It was a heavily researched, insanely complicated political satire about how dying Republican strategist Lee Atwater concocts the Persian Gulf War with the help of some Hollywood filmmakers, all part of a plot to reelect President Bush.
Published in 1993, the novel did only modestly well, but it caught the attention of Hollywood. The result, with a presidential sex scandal added and the title changed, was "Wag the Dog." You know the plot: The president gropes a young visitor to his office; to get everyone's minds off the resulting uproar, he and a team from Hollywood make it look as though the United States has gone to war with Albania.
Once again the reviews were less than stellar, but the filmmakers are having the last laugh. Life is currently imitating art, right down to the possibility that if the United States attacks Iraq, the media will have been primed by the film to suggest that Clinton did so in part to switch the topic from Lewinsky.
"It's really hard to stay ahead of the loop on this," says the 50-year-old Beinhart. But if "Wag the Dog" managed it, matters are less sure with his new novel, "Man of the People," which he's finishing now.
"It's about sex, which is the only issue in American politics," the writer explains. "There are now two parties in this country, the sex party and the anti-sex party. There's a relative consensus on all the financial issues, the defense issues. What's left? Sex. And they're killing people over it" -- a reference to last week's fatal bombing at a Birmingham abortion clinic.
The plot involves a senator who is impeached for adultery and corruption. The model for the main character is former senator Bob Packwood, who was disgraced over sexual harassment charges. Of course, by the time the book is published, readers will think Beinhart was inspired by Clinton.
"I don't care," the author maintains. "You've got to get past that. It's like picking out a tie. You're going out to dinner and you can't make up your mind -- this tie too hip, that one too formal. Eventually it's five minutes to 8, so you grab a tie and go, hope for the best."
As for the real-life events, what struck him is "the utter seriousness which everyone was reporting this. But it's a sex farce. It's like a satire of 'Melrose Place.' "
So real-life events seem like a sendup of a television show that already lampoons reality, while the satirical movie that was designed as a sendup of reality is considered so dangerously close to it that pundits wonder if it will inhibit the president from acting against Iraq. No wonder the novelists are lost.
The trouble isn't that the scandal seems like fiction. It's that it seems like stupid fiction. Presidents are supposed to be brought low by bigger crimes than this. In Baldacci's "Absolute Power," the president doesn't merely have a mistress, he gets in a drunken knife fight with her; to protect him, the Secret Service kills her.
Says Garrett Epps, author of "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington": "In a David Baldacci book, the person who finds evidence of high-level wrongdoing would call the crusty former CIA agent now living in retirement in Montana, the one person they can trust. But this being the real world, who did Linda Tripp call? Her literary agent. This is what I mean by the banality of it all."
Epps also finds the real-life characters distressingly more cynical than most fictional actors. "In order to be satisfying, fiction has to have some sort of moral center," he says. "I can't find one in this story. No one comes off looking good. Washington turns out to be the kind of place where, if you confide in a friend, she tapes you, or she invites you for a drink wearing a body wire."
Sex used to be a cliche of bad Washington fiction. The reality, wiser heads said, was that power was all that counted here.
"My feeling was that everyone in Washington was too busy to have gratifying sex," Buckley says. "Instead of the cinq a sept, the two hours in the afternoon a Frenchman spends with his mistress, I thought it was 'cinq a sept seconds.' "
But he concedes he may have been wrong. Washington has never seemed as sex-obsessed a place as in the past week.
"I suppose," Buckley says, "this is all a validation of a lot of bad novels. It therefore throws down the challenge to the bad novelists: What do they do? I guess they have to become badder novelists."
Indeed, the Clinton scandal may cause a reevaluation of the role of sex in all Washington novels, both the good and bad.
"It's naive to have assumed it didn't always go on," says Charles McCarry. "I don't wish in any way to make a sexist remark, but from a novelist's point of view, women are attracted to power. If you doubt that sex has always been power's handmaiden, read Seutonius. This is 'Lives of the Caesars' all over again, with TV."
The Plot Thickens 1
If novelists can be outdistanced by reality, they also are sometimes inspired by it. Several of those interviewed took up the challenge as to how, if they were writing the story of Clinton and Lewinsky, they would carve a satisfying ending out of it.
Says Buckley: "Clinton looks like he's going to survive after the State of the Union, but then the White House Communications Agency releases a tape of him accepting checks in the Oval Office from Indonesian contributors while having sex with Monica. He has to resign. Gore makes Hillary vice president, because she won over the American people by her dignity during the State of the Union address, looking down adoringly and loyally on Clinton.
"Hillary challenges Gore for the nomination in 2000, and wins. Bill Clinton gets to spend four years looking down adoringly at his wife giving the State of the Union address. When he's not doing that, he's supervising the White House menus for state dinners."
As for the supporting players, "Linda Tripp does not sell her tapes to the tabloids or a book publisher but gets a huge endorsement from Radio Shack. Her commercials run under the slogan, 'Radio Shack: We Bring Down Governments.' Lucianne Goldberg writes a book titled 'A Stain on the Presidency.' Monica Lewinsky becomes a Buddhist nun and takes the name Venerable Man Woe."
The title of this masterpiece?
"I'll call it," Buckley says, " 'Interns of Endearment.' "
The Plot Thickens 2
Vidal, faxing from his home in Italy, where he keeps abreast of the scandal on CNN, says that "at the center of this tale -- if one knows how to dramatize -- are not the Clintons and the Intern (rather boringly modeled on the crazed girl in Eastwood's 'Play Misty for Me') but the latter-day Captain Ahab, Kenneth Starr." He also sees dramatic possibilities in Janet Reno. "Although she is Clinton's attorney general, she has taken every step possible to destroy him.
"This is more for Shakespeare than for the modest talents of today's writers. But I do see a splendid comedy here. For the movies. W.C. Fields often used a wonderful comic actor called Grady Sutton, a moon-faced Southern sissy whose only problem, Fields would opine, is, 'I fear you've got too much of the tomboy in you.' I see Starr as a latter-day Sutton. Linda Tripp as Marjorie Main, a basilisk of that era. Monica as Rochelle Hudson, brain-dead but smiling. Who does W.C. Fields play? Clinton. Dimwits may fantasize about other parts of the president's anatomy, but it is the nose that dominates my TV set; no, it's not yet in Fields's class, but it's getting there."
The Plot Thickens 3
"There are three ways to end this," says Garrett Epps. "There's the roman noir, in which the president becomes the O.J. Simpson of politics. He beats everything, but at the high price of his soul."
In a novel, such downer endings are allowed. But if this novel is going to be bought by the movies, a last-minute piece of evidence is necessary to save the day and provide a happy ending.
"If it's a made-for-TV movie, I'd have the president go into therapy and come to grips with his inner demons. The last shot would be the president and first lady facing the sunset, chastened but wiser."
In feature films, for some reason, no one goes into therapy. "Here, it would be like '90210-1600.' I'd have the heroic good intern save the president from the bad intern."
These three scenarios don't account for something that was often talked about in the first days of the scandal -- a Clinton resignation.
"That's not fiction," Epps says. "But that may be reality."
Just days ago, some pundits thought this a near-certainty. Now that possibility is being discounted. Reality has once again sped on.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company